It was no surprise when Mitt Romney used the first day of the Chicago teachers strike as an occasion to bash his opponent.
Quoting Vice President Joe Biden's speech to the National Education Association in 2011, Romney's campaign issued a statement Monday claiming: "President Obama has chosen his side in this fight, sending his vice president last year to assure the nation's largest teachers union that 'you should have no doubt about my affection for you and the president's commitment to you.'"
Romney was casting Barack Obama as a servant of the teachers' unions, even though Obama's policies have reflected no such favoritism. And White House spokesperson Jay Carney made it abundantly clear that the president has no intention of coming out in support of the Chicago teachers. "We hope that both sides are able to come together to settle this quickly and in the best interests of Chicago's students," Carney said.
The president's team couldn't have come out with a more innocuous and uncommitted stance in what they surely see as an issue with the potential to expose the president's lack of support for labor in general and teachers specifically. Both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association have endorsed the president, even though he shows no interest in advocating for teachers.
That didn't stop Romney, of course. And what made his comments more interesting was that in criticizing Obama, the Republican presidential candidate was taking the side of Obama's former chief of staff, current Chicago mayor and Democratic Party big shot Rahm Emanuel.
Romney was in Lake Forest, Ill., north of Chicago, to attend a big-donor fundraiser. He phoned in an interview with conservative radio show host Hugh Hewitt and voiced his support for Emanuel's assault on teachers, who are on strike to win a fair contract and to defend public schools from the corporate deform agenda. "We ought to put the kids first in this country, and the teacher's union goes behind," Romney said. "As president, I will stand up and say, look, these teachers unions are not acting with the best interest of the kids in mind."
Paul Ryan, the number two man on the Republican ticket, was even more explicit in supporting Rahm. "Mayor Emanuel is right today in saying that this teacher's union strike is unnecessary and wrong," Ryan said. "We know that Rahm is not going to support our campaign, but on this issue and this day, we stand with Mayor Rahm Emanuel."
Sounds like the GOP ticket might soon become "Rahmney/Ryan 2012."
This isn't the first time Emanuel has been endorsed by right-wingers. Andrew Marcus, the conservative blogger, bragged that he conspired with Emanuel "against the unions in this town" in making an anti-public school film that featured an interview with the Chicago mayor.
Emanuel did his best to dismiss the approval of Republicans, telling reporters who asked him about the Romney comment, "While I appreciate his lip service, what really counts is what we are doing here."
On that point, Rahm is right. It doesn't matter that he's a leader of the party Romney is running against or that he once worked for a president who has the support of national teachers' unions. What matters is what he does.
As mayor, Emanuel is continuing and accelerating a drive in Chicago "to starve schools in black and brown neighborhoods of resources, implement test-score evaluations [of teachers], close schools and fire staff, and open [non-union charter schools]," wrote Theresa Moran in Labor Notes. "Lately, he's been pushing a longer school day and year, ignoring the many hours teachers put in after school and at home, and acting like more time–not resources–will fix what ails public schools."
It goes without saying that this drive in Chicago–started under Emanuel's predecessor, Richard J. Daley–is the sole responsibility of Democratic Party, which rules the city as a one-party state.
The reason leading Democrats and leading Republicans can sound indistinguishable from each other when they talk about schools and teachers is that both embrace the same corporate "reform" agenda that aims to dismantle public education as we know it.
Take Jonah Edelman, the son of Children's Defense Fund (CDF) founder Marian Wright Edelman and Clinton administration official Peter Edelman. Jonah Edelman is the CEO of Stand for Children, an organization he cofounded out of a CDF rally in 1996, but which is leading the way in pushing privatization, charter schools and all the other elements of the corporate agenda for public education.
Edelman was embarrassed when a video that spread around the Internet showed him boasting of his role in getting Senate Bill 7 passed in Illinois last year–legislation that put sharp restrictions on the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) in bargaining with the city or striking. A smirking Edelman assured the audience that because of SB 7's requirement of a 75 percent vote of CTU members to authorize a strike, teachers "cannot strike in Chicago." CTU members proved him wrong with a 90 percent strike vote last June.
Edelman was also caught saying that he "made up" the claim that Houston public school students, because of a longer school day, get a total of four more years of education than Chicago students from kindergarten and high school. Emanuel repeated this supposed fact "a thousand times probably on the campaign trail" for mayor as he pushed for a longer school day, Edelman said.
If you listen to Edelman make the case for charter schools and privatization or heap abuse on teachers, you'd swear you were hearing a Republican reactionary like Paul Ryan.
Likewise, as Chicago Reader journalist Ben Joravsky said of Rahm Emanuel, "[F]or all his reputation as a pit bull for Democrats, he's currently advancing an agenda that would go over well at a GOP convention: TIF handouts for corporations, tax breaks for billionaires and charter schools–more, more, more charter schools!" Joravsky concluded by saying that if Barack Obama wins the November elections, "Republicans shouldn't feel too bad–when it comes to ideology, they've practically taken control of his hometown."
The Obama administration hasn't taken sides in Chicago. No doubt White House officials are concerned that an extended teachers' strike could damage Obama's reelection campaign.
Already, the walkout has cost Emanuel valuable time in his new national job for the Democrats–of raising money from wealthy contributors for two pro-Democratic Super PACs. One fundraiser at a Chicago restaurant on the first day of the strike had to be canceled when protesters supporting the teachers learned of the event and planned to demonstrate at it.
Thus, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan emphasized the Obama administration's "neutral" position when he spoke on the second day of the strike. "I hope that the parties will come together to settle this quickly and get our kids back in the classroom," Duncan said.
Still, Emanuel had a valid point when he objected to the idea that Obama is neutral. "I want you to understand, the president has weighed in," Emanuel told reporters. "Every issue we're talking about regarding accountability of our schools, quality in our schools to the education of our children, is the core thrust of Race to the Top."
Race to the Top is the education law pushed by the Obama White House that dangles additional federal money for schools in front of state governments, but on the condition that they passed legislation lifting caps on charter schools, weakening teacher job protections, tying teacher evaluations to student test scores, and imposing merit pay. Emanuel took personal credit for passing Race to the Top and said that his pressure for evaluations tied to testing came directly from the law. "In that sense," he said, "there couldn't be a bigger push for the president."
That's something Chicago teachers know well. They remember Arne Duncan, for example, as the former head of the city's schools and the architect of many of the initiatives that teachers are fighting today.
Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan were undoubtedly hoping to embarrass Obama when they showered his former White House chief of staff with praise for attacking teachers. But they cast a spotlight about an important fact–on public education, there are almost no differences of substance at all between Democrats and Republicans, only different rhetoric, and sometimes not even that.
Both mainstream parties are committed to policies that will transform public education as we know it–at a devastating cost to teachers, students and whole communities.
That's why the Chicago Teachers Union strike is so important–to fight back for the union's demand for "the schools our children deserve."
This article was originally published by Socialist Worker.